A Recruiter Dropped Me In It

I resigned last week1, and my manager said he wasn’t surprised. A recruiter rang him a few weeks ago and announced “I have the perfect candidate for you! ... oh wait, she already works for you … sorry …”

Can you spot the one word that identifies which member of the team is leaving?

SHE. The ratio of women in IT is small to vanishing so it wasn’t hard for my boss to guess which of the two (two women on a twelve person team is a very positive statistic) women in his team might be looking for another option.

So it was that when I resigned1, he wasn’t surprised and told me the recruiter story. I know I am not alone in having a recruiter story to tell – please add yours in the comments or better still blog it and drop us a link!

1 I’ve resigned! I’m moving on and start my new job on March 5th.

Office Dress: Bags

In the final in this mini series of office dress, I’ve covered suits, shoes, and now its the turn of bags.

I am a hoarder of all things, not least of handbags. I’m forever buying beautful bags and then finding that actually the one I was already using is more useful/comfortable/practical. The best solution would clearly be to use my pink Berghaus rucksack for work just I like I do in “real life”, but it doesn’t really fit in that well with my office image :)

For work I think there are some basic requirements which a bag needs. One is to be pretty spacious as I need my umbrella, wallet/phone/keys combo plus a cardigan or scarf, hairbrush, tissues, gum, lip balm and painkillers. In addition I often pack my mini flask of coffee, maybe a snack or even some lunch, maybe to drop off at the postbox, a music player, and who knows what else (knitting, notebooks, maps, assorted gadgets, penknife, kitchen sink, you get the picture). It must fit onto a shoulder or shoulders, I used to be fine with bags to hold in my hand but since having some RSI problems it isn’t comfortable. Oh and they need to shut at the top to keep the rain out!

Pretty bags are a complete non-starter, they quickly get dirty and often are designed for looks rather than strength. I’m not geeky enough for a briefcase and anyway since I don’t carry papers its completely the wrong shape. I have one I use for intervews and rectangular just isn’t useful! On dry days I have a largish turquoise coloured bag with two sections and handles long enough to put them on my shoulder and tuck the bag under my arm (just). My other favourite is a black leather (actually plastic) record bag which at least keeps most of the water out and looks good with my suit.

I am constantly changing between handbags though, and leaving things behind in the old one! It doesn’t help that I don’t dress remotely smart at weekends and there’s also a weekly office dress-down day to complicate the issue. Maybe I will just give up and go back to the rucksack – it worked when I was a student – what do you think?

Office Dress: Suits

Suits are the friend of the office-dress-rule-constrained person. At a few places I’ve worked, its been shirt, trousers and shoes for guys, and “appropriate dress” for girls. That’s no help to anyone, its such a vague description. I want a uniform that comes in multipacks of similar pastel shades with no thought required as well!

For some reason I am significantly colder-blooded than most of my (male) colleagues. They seem to sit about in the office in shirts all year round, but after about October, I’m freezing! I’m not a big fan of knitwear as office wear – not in general, but for me personally. The soft, stretchy clothing bundles up around me and turns my curves (which never look great sitting down) into worse rolls than I really have! Jumpers and cardigans are never long enough either and they just stop at a really bad point, making me look heavier than I am.

The solution is simple: trouser suits1 are the way forward. They’re warm, comfortable, and are like wearing trousers and a coat to the office except they match. Its acceptable to wear normal t-shirts underneath a jacket. They don’t look bad with flat shoes. Actually the only downside that I can think of is that they reek slightly of power-dressing. I’m blessed with the ability to look untidy and uncoordinated in every possible situation though, so I doubt I look overdressed!

I have a series of similar black, mostly pinstriped, suits. Dorothy Perkins do a longer leg length in trousers which fits me fine. They are all machine washable and disintegrate after about two years of wearing one or two times per week each. I finally found my uniform and I’m happy … although I’m sure I would produce much better code in jeans, slippers and a pony tail :)

Does anyone else have any tips to share?

Edit: You can also read my thoughts on shoes and bags

1 Machine-washable trouser suits, to be specific.

Office Dress: Shoes

This is the first entry in a planned mini-series on the issues relating to looking presentable at work when you have to walk there. The article mostly relates to women, since I am one. When I last moved jobs I went from stepping out of my house into my car and out again in the company car park, to a half-mile walk across an exposed section of park, so I’ve had to adapt quickly.

Shoes are all about aesthetics vs. practicality. High heels look great but I’m a programmer, not a model, so I don’t feel obliged to wear high heels for work. Also since I have large feet (a UK size 7), pretty shoes just don’t end up pretty when they get to this size and flat shoes become long – like a clown’s shoes! There are some lovely shoes out there this season but many seem to be soft-soled. That’s all very well but if you actually walk places in them other than indoors, the soles wear away in no time!

Smart office shoes are often rather uncomfortable and I do walk some distance in shoes each day. I love my berghaus walking boots but can’t get away with wearing them to work. In addition I like my feet the shape they are so I won’t wear shoes that hurt.

This winter, I’m wearing these hush puppies – they’re fab!

What do you wear on your feet for work? I’ll be jealous if the answer is “slippers” ....

Edit: you can also read about suits and shoes

How to get your best projects at work cancelled

Pretty much the worst thing that can happen to any geek is for a project they are working on to be cancelled. If its something they have already put a lot of work into and believe in, then it isn’t surprising that it hurts them. I think most of us have been there at one time or another … its canned, and you have an anger inside that is too big for what just happened.

This has happened to me on a number of ocassions, and each time I feel that I brought it on myself. I’m a great believer that if something is to be done, it should be done properly. Which means that when I get given a glimmer of hope that something can be improved or replaced, I push too hard to get too much changed. This makes my superiors (or their superiors, depending) uneasy and they pull the plug.

As I get older and gain wisdom (hopefully!) throughout my working life, I hope that one of two things will happen. Option one is that I’ll care a bit less, remember that this is my job and not my life, and keep it in perspective. The other is that I’ll get better at making my managers feel like they are in control at all times and that this is all their great idea. Ronald Regan is supposed to have said

it’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who takes the credit

And I think that’s true. Perhaps I need to fly further under the radar when I’m working on something interesting?

Coffee Politics

There are some coffee politics happening in my office right now1. I’m not going to write about that though, at least until it blows over. I thought I’d share a couple of previous coffee politics experiences though.

Spare-hand Drink

At one workplace where I had a temporary job one summer, the vending machines were paid for and the etiquette was this: When you decided you wanted to fetch a drink, you announced this fact and opened offers for the spare-hand drink. The person who shouted first (or loudest) would then get the hot drink that you could manage in the other hand from the hand you fetched yours in.

Silver Spoon

Another workplace had us all sat in a long, narrow office and facing outwards. Someone who sat a long way away used to rattle his spoon against his mug repeatedly until someone made him a cup of tea if he was thirsty and thought it wasn’t his turn. That got annoying after a while!

Speedy Operation

A co-worker of mine at a previous job managed to master the art of fetching the tray, offering a drink to each of twelve people in the office in turn and leaving the room with the cups – in the time it took me to visit the ladies! I did enjoy the times that people deliberated on whether they’d liike a drink or not and he didn’t quite make it. I was never quite sure what to think about him …

1 Unless you like warm water, room temperature long-life milk, instant coffee and sweetener added to your cup in that order, this is entertainment rather than deprivation

Work Hygiene

Someone in my office moved desks today (someone left last week so there’s a little reshuffle going on as every takes another step along the hardware/seating improvement path). She1 took one look at her new seat last week and came in today with J-cloth and cleaning fluid and cleaned out the whole desk surface, window sills and inside all the drawers.

Just to clarify, we do have cleaners, its just that they trail down the middle of the office with a hoover each evening and if we’re lucky they also empty the bins, but that’s all. You can imagine that the rest of the office has got pretty dirty in the 15 years or so since the immovable furniture was fitted!

The opportunity was too good to miss borrowed the cleaning things and cleaned my own desk. I’ve been with the company nine months and I understand my desk was empty for some years before that. I wiped the worst off with some tissue when I started but today I moved everything and gave it a good clean. The grime was amazing but the difference it makes to me is astonishing. Visually there’s no change but in reality its a complete turnaround. My workspace is clean and safe, and I’m ready to get on with the task in hand with good humour. I guess this is what they mean when they talk about Hygiene Factors in the workplace!

1 Yes, there is another woman on my team.

My Brush With RSI

RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) is the bogeyman of software developers’ worst nightmares. I think everyone knows someone, or of someone, who was once a great programmer and is now a primary teacher, porter or some such, and all because of this RSI thing. So here’s my experience, because it came true and happened to me.

My experience

I have typed for in excess of ten hours a day, for weeks at a time, at a number of times in my life. Since graduating three years ago I’ve worked exclusively in development of different kinds. Since long before that I have been able to touch type and took jobs as a temporary secretary and typist during my university holidays. So I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to serious typing requirements in the past and no problems.

I first noticed a problem about three months after starting a new job, I had aches and tingles in my fourth and little fingers in both hands. This turned into a feeling of having my hands attached to my arms wrongly – I kept trying to “click” my wrist joints into place all the time and it was getting quite painful. We do have funny furniture at work since the company’s main business is manufacturing furniture, unfortunately not for offices1, and I just couldn’t make it fit me.

I requested a review of my workstation and over the next few weeks a series of people came and measured the space, prodded me and my chair around, fidgeted with my keyboard and generally wrung their hands in despair. It took five weeks for any modification to be made to my desk and by that time I was on some very strong anti-inflammatory medication following a diagnosis of tendonitis and eventually had to call in sick for a few days as my hands were so painful I couldn’t even put the mon the keyboard. I’d like to point out at this stage that I am not in any way criticising my employer, my work area is hard to modify and it is a large organisation which by definition means that it takes time for the bureaucracy to get its internal cogs turning.

When I went to see the doctor I had pains in my fingers, wrists, elbows and also kind of between the two bones in my arm (like what you get after playing badminton when you haven’t for ages). I also lost all grip in my hands, I couldn’t get the top of a bottle of milk or squash or hold anything heavy (like a pan of water). It was horrible but he assured me that I was unlikely to suffer lasting damage and prescribed anti-inflammatories and as much rest as was possible. By this time I wasn’t posting to this site, working on any of my other coding projects, or even doing any crochet. Even holding a book to read was quite painful!

After my desk had been modified, my hands immediately became much less painful although discomfort remains today (two months later). My employer had me see their doctor and he advised that the damage to the tendons was likely to take some time to recover and I might expect some discomfort for a couple of months. In fact this is the case and I am now finding that an ordinary wrist support helps quite a bit, but my hands are painful after a few days of typing. Coding and sql-querying are much worse than straightforward prose, such as this article, I think because the keyboard is laid out to make words easy and punctuation not necessarily so!

At home I use the laptop and sit wherever I like – usually on my feet, sounds daft but I’ve coded for years curled into a ball and it seems to work! I use an external shallow action keyboard (like a laptop one, the keys don’t go down very far) placed on my knee on a cushion which seems to bring it to a comfortable height. I use Opera which can be controlled pretty much entirely from the keyboard, its got plenty of keyboard shortcuts and also spatial link navigation where you just hold down shift and press the arrow keys to navigate a page’s links. Its great and means I don’t have to use a mouse – I don’t think its the mouse that’s the problem but switching between the two certainly provokes a twinge.

In Conclusion

Well I’ll update this article as things improve but for now I think its enough to say that I’m still programming and feel that I can continue to do so as a full-time occupation. I am still suffering the same pains but I was warned it might take time to heal so fingers crossed (I can still do that!) that’s all it is. I wanted to write about this as its a big issue for programmers and other keyboard-users and I really felt I benefitted from their stories and honesty. I almost feel like the whole thing was a bad dream, and hopefully that’s all it will be in the future – just a dream.

1 Actually we make kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, so the offices are miscellaneous drawers with a kitchen worktop on top – it works a lot better than it sounds!

A Tale of Two Jobs

Well, not an actual tale, exactly, but some general anecdotes.

Since moving “oop north” (to Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK), my partner and I have job-hunted once each. Once for me when I relocated up here, and once for him just at the moment as the fixed-term contract that brought him here in the first place has ended. In both instances, we’ve ended up with two good offers and no real way of choosing between them.

The trouble with jobs is that you can never really know how they will turn out until you’ve been there six months. This isn’t an option when you have 24 hours to make a decision that will affect your day-to-day life for the next two years or so, so how can you pick?

Criteria for choosing

This can be straightforward. If you have large credit card or mortgage payments to keep up with, or an expensive habit like an extreme sport, then probably you want the one with the biggest paycheck. If one job is a step on the ladder or uses skills for a job you want to do one day, then take it, even if its less money. If one job is an hour-long commute and the other is a walk across the park, question yourself whether any benefit from the further one can outweight the sense of self you will lose from that kind of journey. If the recruiter annoys you enough then you might allow that to help you decide (I have turned down interviews before purely because I couldn’t face talking to the recruiter again!). If one company is straight with you and calls when they say they will, then that will probably give you a good feeling that you mean what you say the rest of the time. If you just have a good feeling about one job, environment or set of people, then follow your instinct – in this case that is your best indicator.

Once you’ve made your choice, train your brain to stop wondering “what if”? Even if the job you chose doesn’t work out the way you wanted, you get there and the people who were so friendly when you were shown round seem to have had their personalities surgically removed, or the training and development policies have been allowed to mysteriously evaporate, you must never wonder what might have been. For down that path leads despair.

Difficult choices

Personally, I couldn’t really tell you why I chose the way I did this time around. The two jobs used different subsets of my skill set and neither had any obvious progression with them although both would be great stepping stones for when I grow up and decide what I want to be. I can give lots of pros and cons for either choice. Wake up in the morning, and see what you feel, then act on it immediately. After six months in this job, its working out OK, and who’s to say what would have happened if I’d chosen differently? It is our instinct to think that we might be missing out, that the grass is greener elsewhere, that’s what makes us take risks and move on to the next place at all!

I spoke to a guy in a bar last night who told me that when he left university, he’d had two job offers – one for a web company and one for a games company. The web company offered more money and he took that job, but he’s always wondered what it would have been like to make games for a living. My advice: just don’t wonder! [1]

1 Actually I told him he had made the right choice, I did work in games for a while and although it was fun, it is hard work and totally different to the “normal” software industry, I’m glad I did it but I’m also glad I’m doing something else now.

About Blogging About Work

Until now, I’ve avoided blogging about work in pretty much any way. I’ve written about technical stuff that have come up at work but I haven’t written about much beyond that sphere, and even that is only so that I don’t have to hunt for the information next time I run into the same thing and so that others can find the information in the event that google ever admit to having heard of me. I am blogging under my real name (more or less) and I’ve heard enough horror stories of people getting dooced to be shy of this topic.

Until now.

In this day and age, work is a big part of our lives. When I socialise with friends, we mostly talk about who we are and what we do – our occupation is our profession and forms a big chunk of our entire identity. Certainly it is a large portion of who we are today – our selves without the bit that comes from how we got here and so mostly takes account of what we are currently making of life.

Its strange that this subject eludes discussion here, in our household we’ve had more than our fair share of employment-related excitement over the last year – including redundancy, contracting, unemployment and a 200-mile relocation. As an issue, work/jobs/employment/career has never been very far from my consciousness.

So my new resolve is to stop being hung up about this, to write in the abstract about work in relevance to our lives, and to never ever rant about any current workplace, colleagues or customers. Wish me luck!